Photo/IllutrationHisayo Kobayashi, right, chair of the Hokkaido Public Safety Commission, at a Hokkaido assembly session in Sapporo on Aug. 6. Naohito Yamagishi, chief of Hokkaido police, is sitting next to her. (Toru Saito)

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SAPPORO--The head of the public safety commission overseeing Hokkaido police expressed regret over an incident in July that raised questions about the neutrality of police.

Police came in for a storm of criticism after officers manhandled two hecklers who were jeering Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while he was stumping ahead of the July 21 Upper House election.

Commission chair Hisayo Kobayashi told the Hokkaido assembly on Aug. 6, “It is regrettable that doubts have been raised about the impartiality of officers when performing their official duties.”

Her remark at the assembly's general affairs committee was in response to a question from a member.

Hokkaido police were accused of abusing their power as figures of public authority after they forcibly grabbed two hecklers while Abe was stumping in central Sapporo on July 15.

One male heckler shouted, “Abe should quit and go home.”

Seven or so uniformed and plainclothes police officers immediately surrounded him and forcibly hauled him dozens of meters to the back of the crowd.

A woman who shouted, "I'm against the tax hike," was mobbed by about six officers and suffered the same treatment.

Abe’s speech was not interrupted by either heckler.

Police initially explained that they removed the two citizens after warning them first. But no such warnings were heard by reporters covering the event.

A Tokyo resident filed a complaint with the Sapporo District Public Prosecutors Office on July 19, asserting that the actions by “more than a dozen unidentified officers” constituted abuse of power by special public servants.

At the committee session, Kobayashi said that commission members were briefed on the jeering case by police on July 17 and again on July 31.

She said the commission instructed police to “firmly grasp what had happened, offer an explanation to Hokkaido residents in simple language and perform their duties in line with the principles of political neutrality and fairness.”

But Naohito Yamagishi, chief of the Hokkaido police, and other senior police officials who attended the committee session kept citing continuing investigations by prosecutors to evade questions on why police were taking so long to get to the bottom of the matter.

Hokkaido police told The Asahi Shimbun on July 16 that the officers called out to the hecklers to warn them their actions were likely in breach of the Public Offices Election Law.

But the following day, they backtracked and said they were still trying to confirm what happened.

At the session, Yamagishi merely said forcibly moving the two hecklers was a “measure taken from the viewpoint of preventing trouble.”

“We will continue to investigate the case and explain what we find out as soon as possible, while paying heed to progress in the investigation by prosecutors,” he said.

Five members of the commission were appointed by the governor of Hokkaido with the approval of the Hokkaido assembly. They are nominated from those who had not worked for police or prosecutors for five years prior to the appointment.

The commission is an administrative body to ensure that police operate in a democratic manner and with political neutrality.

But some critics say the commission is in name only and has no teeth.

(This article was written by Toru Saito and Kenji Izawa.)